Friday, December 21, 2012

Why I walked out of 'Django Unchained'

I have had an up-and-down appreciation for Quentin Tarantino over 20 years, ever since "Reservoir Dogs." It goes up when his movies are driven by characters I want to know more about ("Pulp Fiction," "Jackie Brown") and down when the director mainly wants us to delight in sadistic behavior ("Kill Bill," "Death Proof").

The opening 40 minutes of "Django Unchained" seemed to put it in the first group: The characters were often funny, and stars Christoph Waltz and Jamie Foxx had charisma. I overlooked the fountains of blood -- which I'm sure Tarantino would describe as "stylized," rather than crude -- to see where his latest revenge fantasy would take us. (Have you noticed? Every one of his movies over the last 15 years has been a bloody revenge fantasy. I'll let his shrink work on that.)

Then came a scene where two black slaves were wrestling to the death for the amusement of their owners. One finally broke the other's arm, then gouged out his eyes, then splintered his skull with a hammer. At that moment, the film became torture porn, a movie whose main function is for us to enjoy the suffering of others. I don't watch torture porn, so I left. We will run a review from a wire service when the film opens, and someone else will choose it.

(A side thought: Tarantino has been rebuked for throwing the word "nigger" around, so he set this film in 1858 -- "two years before the Civil War," as the title card erroneously states -- and shoves the word down our throats dozens of times. But how can we object? It's period realism, right? The naughty little boy has done a clever thing!)

Violence in the hands of a master can be cathartic or give us insight into the human soul. Sophocles, Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock and Michael Haneke all introduce violence into stories to make us better understand the human condition. But torture-porn artists want to titillate, not illuminate. I'd guess Tarantino would claim to be exposing the horrors of slavery, showing how evil it really was, as if that hadn't been done countless times before. But he's not enough of an artist to get us to think, just enough of one to get us to flinch -- or, if we're twisted, to open our eyes wider in glee.

The movie, TV and video game industries have long played down the links between dehumanizing violence onscreen and acts of extreme violence in our societies, although virtually every medical group that's not in their pay contradicts them. But the show business magazine Variety reported yesterday that Chris Dodd, head of the Motion Picture Association of America, has finally admitted his industry needs to be part of "the national conversation about violence."

I'd guess he was motivated by the murders of more than two dozen people at an elementary school in Connecticut, the state he represented in Congress for 36 years. But as long as Tarantino's movies top $100 million at the domestic box office, I don't believe Hollywood's contribution to that conversation will be worth a wooden nickel.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Five Oscars that should be taken back by force

Some people finally get an Academy Award at the end of a long career, as recognition for good work that has never been honored. (That would be Alan Arkin, who won for "Little Miss Sunshine" at 72.) And some get an Academy Award early and spend the rest of their careers making you wonder what voters were thinking in the first place. This blog post is about them. And I'm going to be a nice guy and leave Cuba Gooding Jr. off the list, because he's too easy a target..

Adrien Brody -- After winning for "The Pianist" in 2002, a year when all four other nominees were more memorable (well, maybe not Nicolas Cage), he played leading roles in overblown duds ("King Kong," "The Village") and has settled back into work as a character actor in movies hardly anybody sees ("Detachment," "Predators"). Brody, the ultimate one-shot wonder, will next play Flirty Harry in "InAPPropriate Comedy.".

Nicolas Cage -- Speaking of The Rolling Cheeseball, he now careens from starring parts in junk ("Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance") to blah roles in franchises that can't be re-written to exclude him (the upcoming "National Treasure 3" and "Kick-Ass 2"). Nowadays, he rarely even shows the manic energy that earned him the nickname "Nicolas Rage," and he NEVER shows the depths that won him the 1995 Oscar for "Leaving Las Vegas."

Mel Gibson -- Speaking of 1995, that was the year Gibson won as director for "Braveheart." You can debate whether it was the best-directed film that year (I'd put "Babe" above it), but what has he directed since then? The violent, one-note "Passion of the Christ," the incomprehensible "Apocalypto" and...nothing. There may BE a good director somewhere inside Gibson's head, but we're probably never going to find out.

Christopher McQuarrie -- "The Usual Suspects" remains one of the cleverest thrillers I've seen and justly won best original screenplay for 1995. I looked forward intently to the things he would do next. And they were: "The Way of the Gun," some TV and the dreadful "The Tourist." Otherwise, he has mostly nestled in Tom Cruise's pocket, from "Valkyrie" and "Jack Reacher" to the proposed "Top Gun 2" and "Mission: Impossible 5." Zzzzzzz.

Renee Zellweger -- The supporting actress category offers many people who didn't live up to potential, from Mira Sorvino to Marcia Gay Harden. But I'm going with Big Z, who won the 2003 award for her Granny Clampett knock-off in "Cold Mountain." Except for animation ("Shark's Tale," "Monsters vs. Aliens") and the first "Bridget Jones' Diary," Zellweger and her movies have consistently redefined "mediocrity" over the last decade.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Shameless plug for a friend

One of journalism's cardinal rules of ethics: You don't write articles boosting your friends. But there's no way on Earth I can profit by this blog entry -- in fact, I'm out $200 already -- so I'm going to post it.

Charlotte acting coach J.D. Lewis and his sons, Jackson and Buck, came back from a round-the-world trip this year. But I doubt you'd visit the places they went on any traditional itinerary: They trekked through 12 countries in 12 months, exploring issues from famine to HIV/AIDS treatment to water rights.

They worked with Buddhist monks and howler monkeys. They worked at the New Hope Foundation for disabled children in Beijng and SCOPE (School Communities Offering Projects that Empower), a group bringing resources to children in Kenya. You and I would have gone to the nearby Masai Mara game preserve to see wild animals, as they did. But we wouldn't have walked through tuberculosis-infested Kibera, Nairobi's infamous slum.

They'd need a book to explain all the profound differences the trip caused in their lives. (And J.D. is writing one with his kids.) They came back fired up with a missionary zeal that led them to create a Twelve in Twelve Foundation that will assist projects in 12 countries, including our own (a program to feed children in Mississippi).

Donors can direct their money toward one of these or give to the foundation in general. To learn more, go to; the site was down when I visited today, but you can also go to to read the blog they kept or learn more about them.

And the $200? Well, last week's launch party for the foundation included a silent auction, and I bought a small Australian painting that showed an aboriginal deity creating the stars and kangaroos. That's kind of an apt metaphor, right? Twelve in Twelve aims to show that we can all slightly remake the universe, day by day, with acts of kindness. The amount of time, money and love we invest is up to us.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

People who need an Oscar right away

The subtitle to this post could be "but won't get one this year." Four of these five have gotten nominations, but the big prize has eluded them so far. This list is in alphabetic order, because I can't measure the degrees of the ripoffs:

Leonardo DiCaprio. He's done good work as a teen ("This Boy's Life"), a young leading man ("Titanic") and an adult ("The Aviator"). He can make mediocre pictures look better when given his head ("J. Edgar," "Revolutionary Road"), and he takes risks by appearing in movies that won't be hits. What he'll have to do to win: Just keep working. By 50, he'll make his acceptance speech.

Tina Fey. Only a fourth of the writers working in Hollywood are women -- the majority of those are in TV -- but Fey will someday cross over to movies and stay there, as a double-threat actor-comedian (and maybe a dramatic actor, for all I know). She's smart, funny and adaptable. What she'll have to do to win: Write or play a serio-comic role that flirts with tragedy but ends happily.

David Fincher. His best shot to date was "The Social Network," which for my money was the best picture of 2010. (Loved "The King's Speech, He can direct horror, drama, romance and dark comedy, and he's one of the few directors ever who can sustain a pace that's fast or slow, tense or relaxed, with equal skill. What he'll have to do to win: Direct a large-scale epic.

Anne Hathaway. Anyone who can make Catwoman smart and sensual without a hint of silliness deserves acclaim. She can handle heavy drama, romantic comedy, action, musicals and pure fluff, all with apparent ease, and she can make unsympathetic people interesting enough to watch. What she'll have to do to win: Play a dying character in a better movie than "Love and Other Drugs."

Christopher Nolan. He's the only person in Hollywood who has yet to make a sub-par movie over a career of any length. (Fincher had "Alien³.") His Batman trilogy is the best exploration of a fantasy world since "The Lord of the Rings." But Academy voters find him too dark or complex, neither of which they like or understand. What he'll have to do to win: Make a heartfelt, realistic drama.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Why do movies suck?

The simplest answer is filmmakers' lack of imagination, of course. But as Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon explain in their memoir -- an indispensable Christmas present for any would-be screenwriter who'd sell his grandmother and soul to get a Lexus -- the most successful writers TRY to be unimaginative. They live to sell concepts that can be expressed in a dozen words or less, and Hollywood producers revere them.

The book's title is "Writing Movies for Fun and Profit," and the words "Fun and" have been crossed out with a red pencil. (It comes from Touchstone Books and costs $23.99. Even if you have no intention of prostituting yourself in Hollywood, you'll get $24 worth of laughs.)

These guys know whereof they speak. They have worked on "Night at the Museum" and its sequel, the Jimmy Fallon/Queen Latifah turkey "Taxi," "Herbie Fully Loaded" and "The Pacifier," which along with their other films have collectively grossed more than a billion dollars. They're now collaborating on "Hell Baby," described this way on IMDB: "An expectant couple who move into the most haunted house in New Orleans call upon the services of the Vatican's elite exorcism team to save them from a demonic baby." Nuff said!

What makes their book so entertaining is that they speak truth so bluntly. Most of us assume moronic movies are failed attempts to do better work, but their theory is the opposite: Hollywood strives to make movies as bland, derivative and free of novelty or daring as possible, in order to appeal to the widest possible audience. That audience often can't tell the difference or doesn't care, so everyone involved goes home rich. (An example: The $177 million U.S. gross for the brain-dead "Night at the Museum 2.")

Their book offers frank, funny advice about real situations: joining the Writers Guild of America, entering arbitration over credits, what to do when your movie goes into turnaround (i.e. the person who fought for you at the studio gets fired, and his replacement hates you). You could use it as a guide to breaking into the business, while laughing over chapters with titles such as "I'm Drinking Too Much: Is That a Problem?" and "Why Does Almost Every Studio Movie Suck Donkey Balls?"

The book's depressing if you take it seriously, because it implies that thousands of people who might otherwise be at least slightly creative have devoted themselves to feeding you junk food. But as long as audiences buy that junk food cheerfully, why should they make anything else?

Friday, December 7, 2012

Oscars: The five greatest actors who never won

I don't mean people like Leonardo DiCaprio, who are still active and will almost certainly find a role that earns them an Academy Award. (The National Board of Review thinks he's already found one; it named him best supporting actor for playing the psychotic slave owner in "Django Unchained.") I mean folks like this quintet, listed in reverse order according to how badly they were ripped off:

5) Edward G. Robinson -- He gave a ferocious performance in the first memorable gangster movie of the sound era, "Little Caesar," in 1931. Over the next four decades he played men who were savage or sympathetic, shrewd or stupid, but always complex. And the Academy never saw fit to give him a nomination of any kind, lead or supporting. His wife accepted a posthumous honorary award for him in 1973. 

4) Cary Grant -- Like John Wayne, he was accused of playing a version of himself in film after film, whoever the character might be. Even if that had been true (and it wasn't), it took skill to portray murderers and dupes and playboys and thieves as well as he did. He was nominated twice in the 1940s, but his best work (including two collaborations with Alfred Hitchcock) earned nothing. At least he was alive to accept his honorary prize.

3) Kirk Douglas -- He was nominated three times, one of them for his portrayal of Vincent Van Gogh in "Lust for Life." That title embodied the quality he brought to a remarkably diverse series of heroes and villains (and, once in a while, weaklings and fools). And he wasn't afraid to star in and produce movies with controversial subjects ("Paths of Glory") or collaborators ("Spartacus," written by blacklisted Dalton Trumbo). Another honorary nominee. 

2) Richard Burton -- From 1964 through 1966, he earned three of his seven career nominations for "Becket," "The Spy Who Came in From the Cold" and "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" I can't think of another actor who has given three stronger, more diverse interpretations back to back than Burton. He never got an honorary statuette, because he died at 58; I think Academy voters expected him to turn in more terrific performances someday.  

1) Peter O'Toole -- The versatile Irishman remains the all-time record-holder for acting futility: He has been nominated eight times, always in leading roles. (He first refused an honorary award in 2002, then accepted it.) O'Toole must have the unluckiest timing among nominees, too: His dazzling work in "Lawrence of Arabia" lost to Gregory Peck's iconic Atticus Finch in "To Kill a Mockingbird," and his jaw-dropping performance in "The Ruling Class" was eclipsed by Marlon Brando's mumblings in "The Godfather." The 80-year-old O'Toole isn't dead yet, but his career has dwindled down to cameos in religious dramas and narration for the likes of the upcoming "Highway to Hell." This is like using an actual Oscar as a toilet paper holder.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Two theaters, no waiting!

Sorry for the reference to "The Andy Griffith Show," but Charlotte sometimes seems like a small town, culturally speaking. Yet we're breaking ground this week: For the first time since I came back to the theater beat in 2008 -- and for the first time ever, as far as I know -- a local theater company is giving multi-week productions to two shows at the same time.

Blumenthal Performing Arts has imported or co-sponsored simultaneous productions by other companies at its venues. Various theaters have scheduled benefits or staged readings on dark nights during runs of their big shows. But Carolina Actors Studio Theatre is producing two fully staged  plays at the same time.

"33 Variations," Moises Kaufman's worthy meditation on Beethoven's creativity and the dying musicologist who attempts to explain it, runs through Dec. 23. "Death Tax," Lucas Hnath's comedy about a woman who suspects her daughter wishes to whack her before an inheritance diminishes, runs through Dec. 16. (I haven't seen it yet.) Each features one of the community's strongest actresses: Cynthia Farbman Harris as the musicologist and Polly Adkins as the suspicious matron.

When CAST moved to its new facility at 2424 N. Davidson St. last year, it took over three rehearsal/performance spaces N.C. Dance Theatre had left behind. CAST has rented those out to other tenants and kept up a busy Second Stage series since June, giving those shows space when the main stage was dark.

Now CAST has gotten into the double-production business, risking some dilution of its audience -- or, maybe, hoping that satisfied customers at either play will come back the following week to the other one. I wish them luck.

Monday, December 3, 2012

'Messiah' complex

Nutcracker Princes, Amahl and his mom and prune-faced Scrooge are descending upon us again, as they do every Christmas, and no tradition endures more lastingly than Handel's "Messiah." On Sunday, the Charlotte Music Club performed the Advent portion of that oratorio for the 60th time, and I sang along with the basses for the first time since the early 1990s.

You can't sing great sacred music without at least thinking about God, whatever your religious persuasion (or lack thereof) may be. For the first time, I really considered what every word I was singing meant.

The initial word of the oratorio is "comfort." The final word of the Advent section is "light." Virtually every moment in between is an affirmation of glory or a shout of joy. The second part, which includes the scourging of Christ and the contemplation of evil, has darker moments -- though the chorus "All we like sheep (have gone astray)" has a jaunty tone for music contemplating our propensity to sin! The third portion deals with resurrection and salvation.

Librettist Charles Jennens selected biblical texts that depict a God who brings hope, who's patient with mankind. Except for a brief part near the end of the second section, where "the nations so furiously rage together" against God's anointed and the Lord is encouraged to "dash them in pieces, like a potter's vessel," humankind doesn't get rebuked or punished. Nobody's threatened with eternal damnation. Nobody gets  excluded from the good graces of the Lord or the church, unless he violently seeks exclusion himself.

Handel's musical "sermon" has been preached at Christmas (and frequently at Easter) for two and a half centuries. We're so used to it that we can sit through it without taking in the text, line by line. But we should bring a set of fresh ears every time to a message of compassion that's too rare in our modern world.